Tale of a Doomed Galaxy

8 November, 2015

Part 1

About 3 billion years ago, if there was intelligent life on the galaxy we call PG 1302-102, it should have known it was in serious trouble.

Our galaxy has a supermassive black hole in the middle. But that galaxy had two. One was about ten times as big as the other. Taken together, they weighed a billion times as much as our Sun.

They gradually spiraled in towards each other… and then, suddenly, one fine morning, they collided. The resulting explosion was 10 million times more powerful than a supernova—more powerful than anything astronomers here on Earth have ever seen! It was probably enough to wipe out all life in that galaxy.

We haven’t actually seen this yet. The light and gravitational waves from the disaster are still speeding towards us. They should reach us in roughly 100,000 years. We’re not sure when.

Right now, we see the smaller black hole still orbiting the big one, once every 5 years. In fact it’s orbiting once every 4 years! But thanks to the expansion of the universe, PG 1302-102 is moving away from us so fast that time on that distant galaxy looks significantly slowed down to us.

Orbiting once every 4 years: that doesn’t sound so fast. But the smaller black hole is about 2000 times more distant from its more massive companion than Pluto is from our Sun! So in fact it’s moving at very high speed – about 1% of the speed of light. We can actually see it getting redshifted and then blueshifted as it zips around. And it will continue to speed up as it spirals in.

What exactly will happen when these black holes collide? It’s too bad we won’t live to see it. We’re far enough that it will be perfectly safe to watch from here! But the human race knows enough about physics to say quite a lot about what it will be like. And we’ve built some amazing machines to detect the gravitational waves created by collisions like this—so as time goes on, we’ll know even more.

Part 2

Even before the black holes at the heart of PG 1302-102 collided, life in that galaxy would have had a quasar to contend with!

This is a picture of Centaurus A, a much closer galaxy with a quasar in it. A quasar is huge black hole in the middle of a galaxy—a black hole that’s eating lots of stars, which rip apart and form a disk of hot gas as they spiral in. ‘Hot’ is an understatement, since this gas moves near the speed of light. It gets so hot that it pumps out intense jets of particles – from its north and south poles. Some of these particles even make it to Earth.

Any solar system in Centaurus A that gets in the way of those jets is toast.

And these jets create lots of radiation, from radio waves to X-rays. That’s how we can see quasars from billions of light years away. Quasars are the brightest objects in the universe, except for short-lived catastrophic events like the black hole collisions and gamma-ray bursts from huge dying stars.

It’s hard to grasp the size and power of such things, but let’s try. You can’t see the black hole in the middle of this picture, but it weighs 55 million times as much as our Sun. The blue glow of the jets in this picture is actually X rays. The jet at upper left is 13,000 light years long, made of particles moving at half the speed of light.

A typical quasar puts out a power of roughly 1040 watts. They vary a lot, but let’s pick this number as our ‘standard quasar’.

But what does 1040 watts actually mean? For comparison, the Sun puts out 4 x 1026 watts. So, we’re talking 30 trillion Suns. But even that’s too big a number to comprehend!

Maybe it would help to say that the whole Milky Way puts out 5 x 1036 watts. So a single quasar, at the center of one galaxy, can have the power of 2000 galaxies like ours.

Or, we can work out how much energy would be produced if the entire mass of the Moon were converted into energy. I’m getting 6 x 1039 joules. That’s a lot! But our standard quasar is putting out a bit more power than if it were converting one Moon into energy each second.

But you can’t just turn matter completely into energy: you need an equal amount of antimatter, and there’s not that much around. A quasar gets its power the old-fashioned way: by letting things fall down. In this case, fall down into a black hole.

To power our standard quasar, 10 stars need to fall into the black hole every year. The biggest quasars eat 1000 stars a year. The black hole in our galaxy gets very little to eat, so we don’t have a quasar.

There are short-lived events much more powerful than a quasar. For example, a gamma-ray burst, formed as a hypergiant star collapses into a black hole. A powerful gamma-ray burst can put out 10^44 watts for a few seconds. That’s equal to 10,000 quasars! But quasars last a long, long time.

So this was life in PG 1302-102 before things got really intense – before its two black holes spiraled into each other and collided. What was that collision like? I’ll talk about that next time.

The above picture of Centaurus A was actually made from images taken by three separate telescopes. The orange glow is submillimeter radiation – between infrared and microwaves—detected by the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile. The blue glow is X-rays seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The rest is a photo taken in visible light by the Wide Field Imager on the Max-Planck/ESO 2.2 meter telescope, also located in Chile. This shows the dust lanes in the galaxy and background stars.

Part 3

What happened at the instant the supermassive black holes in the galaxy PG 1302-102 finally collided?

We’re not sure yet, because the light and gravitational waves will take time to get here. But physicists are using computers to figure out what happens when black hole collide!

Here you see some results. The red blobs are the event horizons of two black holes.

First the black holes orbit each other, closer and closer, as they lose energy by emitting gravitational radiation. This is called the ‘inspiral’ phase.

Then comes the ‘plunge’ and ‘merger’. They plunge towards each other. A thin bridge forms between them, which you see here. Then they completely merge.

Finally you get a single black hole, which oscillates and then calms down. This is called the ‘ringdown’, because it’s like a bell ringing, loudly at first and then more quietly. But instead of emitting sound, it’s emitting gravitational waves—ripples in the shape of space!

In the top picture, the black holes have the same mass: one looks smaller, but that’s because it’s farther away. In the bottom picture, the black hole at left is twice as massive.

Here’s one cool discovery. An earlier paper had argued there could be two bridges, except in very symmetrical situations. If that were true, a black hole could have the topology of a torus for a little while. But these calculations showed that – at least in the cases they looked at—there’s just one bridge.

So, you can’t have black hole doughnuts. At least not yet.

These calculations were done using free software called SpEC. But before you try to run it at home: the team that puts out this software says:

Because of the steep learning curve and complexity of SpEC, new users are typically introduced to SpEC through a collaboration with experienced SpEC users.

It probably requires a lot of computer power, too. These calculations are very hard. We know the equations; they’re just tough to solve. The first complete simulation of an inspiral, merger and ringdown was done in 2005.

The reason people want to simulate colliding black holes is not mainly to create pretty pictures, or even understand what happens to the event horizon. It’s to understand the gravitational waves they will produce! People are building better and better gravitational wave detectors—more on that later—but we still haven’t seen gravitational waves. This is not surprising: they’re very weak. To find them, we need to filter out noise. So, we need to know what to look for.

The pictures are from here:

• Michael I. Cohen and Jeffrey D. Kaplan and Mark A. Scheel, On toroidal horizons in binary black hole inspirals, Phys. Rev. D 85 (2012), 024031.

Part 4

Let’s imagine an old, advanced civilization in the doomed galaxy PG 1302-102.

Long ago they had mastered space travel. Thus, they were able to survive when their galaxy collided with another—just as ours will collide with Andromeda four billion years from now. They had a lot of warning—and so do we. The picture here shows what Andromeda will look like 250 million years before it hits.

They knew everything we do about astronomy—and more. So they knew that when galaxies collide, almost all stars sail past each other unharmed. A few planets get knocked out of orbit. Colliding clouds of gas and dust form new stars, often blue giants that live short, dramatic lives, going supernova after just 10 million years.

All this could be handled by not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They knew the real danger came from the sleeping monsters at the heart of the colliding galaxies.

Namely, the supermassive black holes!

Almost every galaxy has a huge black hole at its center. This black hole is quiet when not being fed. But when galaxies collide, lots of gas and dust and even stars get caught by the gravity and pulled in. This material form a huge flat disk as it spirals down and heats up. The result is an active galactic nucleus.

In the worst case, the central black holes can eat thousands of stars a year. Then we get a quasar, which easily pumps out the power of 2000 ordinary galaxies.

Much of this power comes out in huge jets of X-rays. These jets keep growing, eventually stretching for hundreds of thousands of light years. The whole galaxy becomes bathed in X-rays—killing all life that’s not prepared.

Let’s imagine a civilization that was prepared. Natural selection has ways of weeding out civilizations that are bad at long-term planning. If you’re prepared, and you have the right technology, a quasar could actually be a good source of power.

But the quasar was just the start of the problem. The combined galaxy had two black holes at its center. The big one was at least 400 million times the mass of our Sun. The smaller one was about a tenth as big—but still huge.

They eventually met and started to orbit each other. By flinging stars out the way, they gradually came closer. It was slow at first, but the closer they got, the faster they circled each other, and the more gravitational waves they pumped out. This carried away more energy—so they moved closer, and circled even faster, in a dance with an insane, deadly climax.

Right now—here on Earth, where it takes a long time for the news to reach us—we see that in 100,000 years the two black holes will spiral down completely, collide and merge. When this happens, a huge pulse of gravitational waves, electromagnetic radiation, matter and even antimatter will blast through the galaxy called PG 1302-102.

I don’t know exactly what this will be like. I haven’t found papers describing this kind of event in detail.

One expert told the New York Times that the energy of this explosion will equal 100 million supernovae. I don’t think he was exaggerating. A supernova is a giant star whose core collapses as it runs out of fuel, easily turning several Earth masses of hydrogen into iron before you can say “Jack Robinson”. When it does this, it can easily pump out 1044 joules of energy. So, 100 millon supernovae is 1052 joules. By contrast, if we could convert all the mass of the black holes in PG 1302-102. into energy, we’d get about 1056 joules. So, our expert was just saying that their merger will turns 0.01% of their combined mass into energy. That seems quite reasonable to me.

But I want to know what happens then! What will the explosion do to the galaxy? Most of the energy comes out as gravitational radiation. Gravitational waves don’t interact very strongly with matter. But when they’re this strong, who knows? And of course there will be plenty of ordinary radiation, as the accretion disk gets shredded and sucked into the new combined black hole.

The civilization I’m imagining was smart enough not to stick around. They decided to simply leave the galaxy.

After all, they could tell the disaster was coming, at least a million years in advance. Some may have decided to stay and rough it out, or die a noble death. But most left.

And then what?

It takes a long time to reach another galaxy. Right now, travelling at 1% the speed of light, it would take 250 million years to reach Andromeda from here.

But they wouldn’t have to go to another galaxy. They could just back off, wait for the fireworks to die down, and move back in.

So don’t feel bad for them. I imagine they’re doing fine.

By the way, the expert I mentioned is S. George Djorgovski of Caltech, mentioned here:

• Dennis Overbye, Black holes inch ahead to violent cosmic union, New York Times, 7 January 2015.

Part 5

When distant black holes collide, they emit a burst of gravitational radiation: a ripple in the shape of space, spreading out at the speed of light. Can we detect that here on Earth? We haven’t yet. But with luck we will soon, thanks to LIGO.

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. The idea is simple. You shine a laser beam down two very long tubes and let it bounce back and forth between mirrors at the ends. You use this compare the length of these tubes. When a gravitational wave comes by, it stretches space in one direction and squashes it in another direction. So, we can detect it.

Sounds easy, eh? Not when you run the numbers! We’re trying to see gravitational waves that stretch space just a tiny bit: about one part in 1023. At LIGO, the tubes are 4 kilometers long. So, we need to see their length change by an absurdly small amount: one-thousandth the diameter of a proton!

It’s amazing to me that people can even contemplate doing this, much less succeed. They use lots of tricks:

• They bounce the light back and forth many times, effectively increasing the length of the tubes to 1800 kilometers.

• There’s no air in the tubes—just a very good vacuum.

• They hang the mirrors on quartz fibers, making each mirror part of a pendulum with very little friction. This means it vibrates very well at one particular frequency, and very badly at frequencies far from that. This damps out the shaking of the ground, which is a real problem.

• This pendulum is hung on another pendulum.

• That pendulum is hung on a third pendulum.

• That pendulum is hung on a fourth pendulum.

• The whole chain of pendulums is sitting on a device that detects vibrations and moves in a way to counteract them, sort of like noise-cancelling headphones.

• There are 2 of these facilities, one in Livingston, Louisiana and another in Hanford, Washington. Only if both detect a gravitational wave do we get excited.

I visited the LIGO facility in Louisiana in 2006. It was really cool! Back then, the sensitivity was good enough to see collisions of black holes and neutron stars up to 50 million light years away.

Here I’m not talking about supermassive black holes like the ones in the doomed galaxy of my story here! I’m talking about the much more common black holes and neutron stars that form when stars go supernova. Sometimes a pair of stars orbiting each other will both blow up, and form two black holes—or two neutron stars, or a black hole and neutron star. And eventually these will spiral into each other and emit lots of gravitational waves right before they collide.

50 million light years is big enough that LIGO could see about half the galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. Unfortunately, with that many galaxies, we only expect to see one neutron star collision every 50 years or so.

They never saw anything. So they kept improving the machines, and now we’ve got Advanced LIGO! This should now be able to see collisions up to 225 million light years away… and after a while, three times further.

They turned it on September 18th. Soon we should see more than one gravitational wave burst each year.

In fact, there’s a rumor that they’ve already seen one! But they’re still testing the device, and there’s a team whose job is to inject fake signals, just to see if they’re detected. Davide Castelvecchi writes:

LIGO is almost unique among physics experiments in practising ‘blind injection’. A team of three collaboration members has the ability to simulate a detection by using actuators to move the mirrors. “Only they know if, and when, a certain type of signal has been injected,” says Laura Cadonati, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who leads the Advanced LIGO’s data-analysis team.

Two such exercises took place during earlier science runs of LIGO, one in 2007 and one in 2010. Harry Collins, a sociologist of science at Cardiff University, UK, was there to document them (and has written books about it). He says that the exercises can be valuable for rehearsing the analysis techniques that will be needed when a real event occurs. But the practice can also be a drain on the team’s energies. “Analysing one of these events can be enormously time consuming,” he says. “At some point, it damages their home life.”

The original blind-injection exercises took 18 months and 6 months respectively. The first one was discarded, but in the second case, the collaboration wrote a paper and held a vote to decide whether they would make an announcement. Only then did the blind-injection team ‘open the envelope’ and reveal that the events had been staged.

Aargh! The disappointment would be crushing.

But with luck, Advanced LIGO will soon detect real gravitational waves. And I hope life here in the Milky Way thrives for a long time – so that when the gravitational waves from the doomed galaxy PG 1302-102 reach us, hundreds of thousands of years in the future, we can study them in exquisite detail.

For Castelvecchi’s whole story, see:

• Davide Castelvecchi Has giant LIGO experiment seen gravitational waves?, Nature, 30 September 2015.

For pictures of my visit to LIGO, see:

• John Baez, This week’s finds in mathematical physics (week 241), 20 November 2006.

For how Advanced LIGO works, see:

• The LIGO Scientific Collaboration Advanced LIGO, 17 November 2014.


To see where the pictures are from, click on them. For more, try this:

• Ravi Mandalia, Black hole binary entangled by gravity progressing towards deadly merge.

The picture of Andromeda in the nighttime sky 3.75 billion years from now was made by NASA. You can see a whole series of these pictures here:

• NASA, NASA’s Hubble shows Milky Way is destined for head-on collision, 31 March 2012.

Let’s get ready! For starters, let’s deal with global warming.

Scholz’s Star

19 February, 2015

100,000 years ago, some of my ancestors came out of Africa and arrived in the Middle East. 50,000 years ago, some of them reached Asia. But between those dates, about 70,000 years ago, two stars passed through the outer reaches of the Solar System, where icy comets float in dark space!

One was a tiny red dwarf called Scholz’s star. It’s only 90 times as heavy as Jupiter. Right now it’s 20 light years from us, so faint that it was discovered only in 2013, by Ralf-Dieter Scholz—an expert on nearby stars, high-velocity stars, and dwarf stars.

The other was a brown dwarf: a star so small that it doesn’t produce energy by fusion. This one is only 65 times the mass of Jupiter, and it orbits its companion at a distance of 80 AU.

(An AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance between the Earth and the Sun.)

A team of scientists has just computed that while some of my ancestors were making their way to Asia, these stars passed about 0.8 light years from our Sun. That’s not very close. But it’s close enough to penetrate the large cloud of comets surrounding the Sun: the Oort cloud.

They say this event didn’t affect the comets very much. But if it shook some comets loose from the Oort cloud, they would take about 2 million years to get here! So, they won’t arrive for a long time.

At its closest approach, Scholz’s star would have had an apparent magnitude of about 11.4. This is a bit too faint to see, even with binoculars. So, don’t look for it myths and legends!

As usual, the paper that made this discovery is expensive in journals but free on the arXiv:

• Eric E. Mamajek, Scott A. Barenfeld, Valentin D. Ivanov, Alexei Y. Kniazev, Petri Vaisanen, Yuri Beletsky, Henri M. J. Boffin, The closest known flyby of a star to the Solar System.

It must be tough being a scientist named ‘Boffin’, especially in England! Here’s a nice account of how the discovery was made:

• University of Rochester, A close call of 0.8 light years, 16 February 2015.

The brown dwarf companion to Scholz’s star is a ‘class T’ star. What does that mean? It’s pretty interesting. Let’s look at an example just 7 light years from Earth!

Brown dwarfs


Thanks to some great new telescopes, astronomers have been learning about weather on brown dwarfs! It may look like this artist’s picture. (It may not.)

Luhman 16 is a pair of brown dwarfs orbiting each other just 7 light years from us. The smaller one, Luhman 16B, is half covered by huge clouds. These clouds are hot—1200 °C—so they’re probably made of sand, iron or salts. Some of them have been seen to disappear! Why? Maybe ‘rain’ is carrying this stuff further down into the star, where it melts.

So, we’re learning more about something cool: the ‘L/T transition’.

Brown dwarfs can’t fuse ordinary hydrogen, but a lot of them fuse the isotope of hydrogen called deuterium that people use in H-bombs—at least until this runs out. The atmosphere of a hot brown dwarf is similar to that of a sunspot: it contains molecular hydrogen, carbon monoxide and water vapor. This is called a class M brown dwarf.

But as they run out of fuel, they cool down. The cooler class L brown dwarfs have clouds! But the even cooler class T brown dwarfs do not. Why not?

This is the mystery we may be starting to understand: the clouds may rain down, with material moving deeper into the star! Luhman 16B is right near the L/T transition, and we seem to be watching how the clouds can disappear as a brown dwarf cools. (Its larger companion, Luhman 16A, is firmly in class L.)

Finally, as brown dwarfs cool below 300 °C, astronomers expect that ice clouds start to form: first water ice, and eventually ammonia ice. These are the class Y brown dwarfs. Wouldn’t that be neat to see? A star with icy clouds!

Could there be life on some of these stars?

Caroline Morley regularly blogs about astronomy. If you want to know more about weather on Luhman 16B, try this:

• Caroline Morley, Swirling, patchy clouds on a teenage brown dwarf, 28 February 2012.

She doesn’t like how people call brown dwarfs “failed stars”. I agree! It’s like calling a horse a “failed giraffe”.

For more, try:

Brown dwarfs, Scholarpedia.

Earth-Like Planets Near Red Dwarf Stars

14 February, 2015

Can red dwarf stars have Earth-like planets with life?

This is an important question, at least in the long run, because 80% of the stars in the Milky Way are red dwarfs, even though none are visible to the naked eye. 20 of the 30 nearest stars are red dwarfs! It would be nice to know if they can have planets with life.

Also, red dwarf stars live a long time! They’re small—and the smaller a star is, the longer it lives. Calculations show that a red dwarf one-tenth the mass of our Sun should last for 10 trillion years!

So if life is possible on planets orbiting red dwarf stars—or if life could get there—we could someday have very, very old civilizations. That idea excites me. Imagine what a galactic civilization spanning the 80 billion red dwarfs in our galaxy could do in 10 trillion years!

(No: you can’t imagine it. You don’t have time to think of all the amazing things they could do.)

Proxima Centauri

Let’s start close to home. Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, is a red dwarf. If we ever explore interstellar space, we may stop by this star. So, it’s worth knowing a bit about it.

We don’t know if it has planets. But it could be part of a triple star system! The closest neighboring stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, orbit each other every 80 years. One is a bit bigger than the Sun, the other a bit smaller. They orbit in a fairly eccentric ellipse. At their closest, their distance is like the distance from Saturn to the Sun. At their farthest, it’s more like the distance from Pluto to the Sun.

Proxima Centauri is fairly far from both: a quarter of a light year away. That’s about 350 times the distance from Pluto to the Sun! We’re not even sure Proxima Centauri is gravitationally bound to the other stars. If it is, its orbital period could easily exceed 500,000 years.

If Proxima Centauri had an Earth-like planet, there’s a bit of a problem: it’s a flare star.

You see, convection stirs up this star’s whole interior, unlike the Sun. Convection of charged plasma makes strong magnetic fields. Magnetic fields get tied in knots, and the energy gets released through enormous flares! They can become as large as the star itself, and get so hot that they radiate lots of X-rays.

This could be bad for life on nearby planets… especially since an Earth-like planet would have to be very close. You see, Proxima Centauri is very faint: just 0.17% the brightness of our Sun!

In fact many red dwarfs are flare stars, for the same reasons. Proxima Centauri is actually fairly tame as red dwarfs go, because it’s 4.9 billion years old. Younger ones are more lively, with bigger flares.

Proxima Centauri is just 4.24 light-years away. If explore interstellar space it may be a good place to visit. It’s actually getting closer: it’ll come within about 3 light-years of us in roughly 27,000 years, and then drift by. We should take advantage of this and go visit it soon, like in a few centuries!

Gliese 667 Cc

Gliese 667C is a red dwarf just 1.4% as bright as our Sun. Unremarkable: such stars are a dime a dozen. But it’s famous, because we know it has at least two planets, one of which is quite Earth-like!

This planet, called Gliese 667 Cc, is one of the most Earth-like ones we know today. But it’s weirdly different from our home in many ways. Its mass is 3.8 times that of Earth. It should be a bit warmer than Earth—but dimly lit as seen by our eyes, since most of the light it gets is in the infrared.

Being close to its dim red dwarf star, its year is just 28 Earth days long. But there’s something even cooler about this planet. You can see it in the NASA artist’s depiction above. The red dwarf Gliese 667C is part of a triple star system!

The largest star in this system, Gliese 667 A, is three-quarters the mass of our Sun, but only 12% as bright. It’s an orange dwarf, intermediate between a red dwarf and our Sun, which is considered a yellow dwarf.

The second largest, Gliese 667 B, is also an orange dwarf, only 5% as bright as our sun.

These two orbit each other every 42 years. The red dwarf Gliese 667 C is considerably farther away, orbiting this pair.

What could the planet Gliese 667 Cc be like?

Tidally locked planets

Since a planet needs to be close to a red dwarf to be warm enough for liquid water, such planets are likely to be be tidally locked, with one side facing their sun all the time.

For a long time, this made scientists believe the day side of such a planet would be hot and dry, with all the water locked in ice on the night side, as shown above. People call this a water-trapped world. Perhaps not so good for life!

But a new paper argues that other kinds of worlds are likely too!

In a thin ice waterworld, an ocean covers most of the planet. It’s covered with ice on the night side, maybe 10 meters thick. The day side has open ocean. Ice melts near the edge of the ice, pours into the ocean on the day side… while on the night side, water freezes onto the bottom of the ice layer.

In an ice sheet-ocean world, there’s a big ocean on the day side and a big continent on the night side. As in the water-trapped world, a lot of ice forms on the night side, up to a kilometer thick. But if there’s enough geothermal heat, and enough water, not all the water gets frozen on the night side: enough melts to form an ocean on the day side.

Needless to say, these new scenarios are exciting because they could be more conducive to life!

Read more here:

• Jun Yang, Yonggang Liu, Yongyun Hu and Dorian S. Abbot, Water trapping on tidally locked terrestrial planets requires special conditions.

Abstract: Surface liquid water is essential for standard planetary habitability. Calculations of atmospheric circulation on tidally locked planets around M stars suggest that this peculiar orbital configuration lends itself to the trapping of large amounts of water in kilometers-thick ice on the night side, potentially removing all liquid water from the day side where photosynthesis is possible. We study this problem using a global climate model including coupled atmosphere, ocean, land, and sea-ice components as well as a continental ice sheet model driven by the climate model output.

For a waterworld we find that surface winds transport sea ice toward the day side and the ocean carries heat toward the night side. As a result, night-side sea ice remains about 10 meters thick and night-side water trapping is insignificant. If a planet has large continents on its night side, they can grow ice sheets about a kilometer thick if the geothermal heat flux is similar to Earth’s or smaller. Planets with a water complement similar to Earth’s would therefore experience a large decrease in sea level when plate tectonics drives their continents onto the night side, but would not experience complete day-side dessication. Only planets with a geothermal heat flux lower than Earth’s, much of their surface covered by continents, and a surface water reservoir about 10% of Earth’s would be susceptible to complete water trapping.

From a technical viewpoint, what’s fun about this new paper is that it uses detailed climate models that have been radically hacked to deal with a red dwarf star. Paraphrasing:

We perform climate simulations with the Community Climate System Model version 3.0 (CCSM3) which was originally developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research to study the climate of Earth. The model contains four coupled components: atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, and land. The atmosphere component calculates atmospheric circulation and parameterizes sub-grid processes such as convection, precipitation, clouds, and boundary- layer mixing. The ocean component computes ocean circulation using the hydrostatic and Boussinesq approximations. The sea-ice component predicts ice fraction, ice thickness, ice velocity, and energy exchanges between the ice and the atmosphere/ ocean. The land component calculates surface temperature, soil water content, and evaporation.

We modify CCSM3 to simulate the climate of habitable planets around M stars following Rosenbloom et al., Liu et al., and Hu & Yang. The stellar spectrum we use is a blackbody with an effective temperature of 3400 K. We employ planetary parameters typical of a super-Earth: a radius of 1.5 R, gravity of 1.38 g, and an orbital period of 37 Earth-days. The orbital period of habitable zone planets around M stars is roughly 10–100 days. We set the insolation to 866 watts per square meter and both the obliquity and eccentricity to zero. The atmospheric surface pressure is 1.0 bar, including N2, H2O, and 355 parts per million CO2.

And so on. Way cool! They consider a variety of different kinds of continents and oceans… including one where they’re just like those here on Earth—just because the data for that is easy to get!

Here’s a question I don’t know the answer to. To what extent can models like Community Climate System Model version 3.0 be tweaked to handle different planets? And what are the main things we should worry about: ways Earth-like planets can be different enough to seriously throw off the models?

We live in exciting times, where just as we’re making huge progress trying to understand the Earth’s climate in time to make wise decisions, we’re discovering hundreds of new planets with their own very different climates.

The Pentagram of Venus

4 January, 2014


This image, made by Greg Egan, shows the orbit of Venus.

Look down on the plane of the Solar System from above the Earth. Track the Earth so it always appears directly below you, but don’t turn along with it. With the passage of each year, you will see the Sun go around the Earth. As the Sun goes around the Earth 8 times, Venus goes around the Sun 13 times, and traces out the pretty curve shown here.

It’s called the pentagram of Venus, because it has 5 ‘lobes’ where Venus makes its closest approach to Earth. At each closest approach, Venus move backwards compared to its usual motion across the sky: this is called retrograde motion.

Actually, what I just said is only approximately true. The Earth orbits the Sun once every


days. Venus orbits the Sun once every


days. So, Venus orbits the Sun in

224.701 / 365.256 ≈ 0.615187

Earth years. And here’s the cool coincidence:

8/13 ≈ 0.615385

That’s pretty close! So in 8 Earth years, Venus goes around the Sun almost 13 times. Actually, it goes around 13.004 times.

During this 8-year cycle, Venus gets as close as possible to the Earth about

13 – 8 = 5

times. And each time it does, Venus moves to a new lobe of the pentagram of Venus! This new lobe is

8 – 5 = 3

steps ahead of the last one. Check to make sure:

That’s why they call it the pentagram of Venus!

When Venus gets as close as possible to us, we see it directly in front of the Sun. This is called an inferior conjunction. Astronomers have names for all of these things:

So, every 8 years there are about 5 inferior conjunctions of Venus.

Puzzle 1: Suppose the Earth orbits the Sun n times while another planet, closer to the Sun, orbits it m times. Under what conditions does the ‘generalized pentagram’ have k = mn lobes? (The pentagram of Venus has 5 = 13 – 8 lobes.)

Puzzle 2: Under what conditions does the planet move forward j = nk steps each time it reaches a new lobe? (Venus moves ahead 3 = 8 – 5 steps each time.)

Now, I’m sure you’ve noticed that these numbers:

3, 5, 8, 13

are consecutive Fibonacci numbers.

Puzzle 3: Is this just a coincidence?

As you may have heard, ratios of consecutive Fibonacci numbers give the best approximations to the golden ratio φ = (√5 – 1)/2. This number actually plays a role in celestial mechanics: the Kolmogorov–Arnol’d–Moser theorem says two systems vibrating with frequencies having a ratio equal to φ are especially stable against disruption by resonances, because this number is hard to approximate well by rationals. But the Venus/Earth period ratio 0.615187 is actually closer to the rational number 8/13 ≈ 0.615385 than φ ≈ 0.618034. So if this period ratio is trying to avoid rational numbers by being equal to φ, it’s not doing a great job!

It’s all rather tricky, because sometimes rational numbers cause destabilizing resonances, as we see in the gaps of Saturn’s rings:

whereas other times rational numbers stabilize orbits, as with the moons of Jupiter:

I’ve never understood this, and I’m afraid no amount of words will help me: I’ll need to dig into the math.

Given my fascination with rolling circles and the number 5, I can’t believe that I learned about the pentagram of Venus only recently! It’s been known at least for centuries, perhaps millennia. Here’s a figure from James Ferguson’s 1799 book Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles:

Naturally, some people get too excited about all this stuff—the combination of Venus, Fibonacci numbers, the golden ratio, and a ‘pentagram’ overloads their tiny brains. Some claim the pentagram got its origin from this astronomical phenomenon. I doubt we’ll ever know. Some get excited about the fact that a Latin name for the planet Venus is Lucifer. Lucifer, pentagrams… get it?

I got the above picture from here:

Venus and the pentagram, Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon.

This website is defending the Freemasons against accusations of Satanism!

On a sweeter note, the pentagram of Venus is also called the rose of Venus. You can buy a pendant in this pattern:

It’s pretty—but according to the advertisement, that’s not all! It’s also “an energetic tool that creates a harmonising field of Negative Ion around our body to support and balance our own magnetic field and aura.”

In The Da Vinci Code, someone claims that Venus traces “a perfect pentacle across the ecliptic sky every 8 years.”

But it’s not perfect! Every 8 years, Venus goes around the Sun 13.004 times. So the whole pattern keeps shifting. It makes a full turn about once every 160 years. You can see this slippage using this nice applet, especially if you crank up the speed:

• Steven Deutch, The (almost) Venus-Earth pentagram.

Also, the orbits of Earth and Venus aren’t perfect circles!

But still, it’s fun. The universe is full of mathematical beauty. It seems we need to get closer and closer to the fundamental laws of nature to make the math and the universe match more and more accurately. Maybe that’s what ‘fundamental laws’ means. But the universe is also richly packed with beautiful approximate mathematical patterns, stacked on top of each other in a dizzying way.


Talk at the SETI Institute

5 December, 2013

SETI means ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’. I’m giving a talk at the SETI Institute on Tuesday December 17th, from noon to 1 pm. You can watch it live, watch it later on their YouTube channel, or actually go there and see it. It’s free, and you can just walk in at 189 San Bernardo Avenue in Mountain View, California, but please register if you can.

Life’s Struggle to Survive

When pondering the number of extraterrestrial civilizations, it is worth noting that even after it got started, the success of life on Earth was not a foregone conclusion. We recount some thrilling episodes from the history of our planet, some well-documented but others merely theorized: our collision with the planet Theia, the oxygen catastrophe, the snowball Earth events, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event, the asteroid that hit Chicxulub, and more, including the global warming episode we are causing now. All of these hold lessons for what may happen on other planets.

If you know interesting things about these or other ‘close calls’, please tell me! I’m still preparing my talk, and there’s room for more fun facts. I’ll make my slides available when they’re ready.

The SETI Institute looks like an interesting place, and my host, Adrian Brown, is an expert on the poles of Mars. I’ve been fascinated about the water there, and I’ll definitely ask him about this paper:

• Adrian J. Brown, Shane Byrne, Livio L. Tornabene and Ted Roush, Louth crater: Evolution of a layered water ice mound, Icarus 196 (2008), 433–445.

Louth Crater is a fascinating place. Here’s a photo:

By the way, I’ll be in Berkeley from December 14th to 21st, except for a day trip down to Mountain View for this talk. I’ll be at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute talking to Eliezer Yudkowsky, Paul Christiano and others at a Workshop on Probability, Logic and Reflection. This invitation arose from my blog post here:

Probability theory and the undefinability of truth.

If you’re in Berkeley and you want to talk, drop me a line. I may be too busy, but I may not.

The Search For Budget-Conscious Life

18 May, 2013


Lisa and I had dinner with Gregory Benford and his wife when I visited U.C. Irvine a couple of weekends ago, and he raised an interesting point. So far, radio searches for extraterrestrial life have only seen puzzling brief signals – not long transmissions. But what if this is precisely what we should expect?

A provocative example is Sullivan, et al. (1997). This survey lasted about 2.5 hours, with 190 1.2 minute integrations. With many repeat observations, they saw nothing that did not seem manmade. However, they “recorded intriguing, non-repeatable, narrowband signals, apparently not of manmade origin and with some degree of concentration toward the galactic plane…” Similar searches also saw one-time signals, not repeated (Shostak & Tarter, 1985; Gray & Marvel, 2001 Gray, 2001). These searches had slow times to revisit or reconfirm, often days (Tarter, 2001). Overall, few searches lasted more than hour, with lagging confirmation checks (Horowitz & Sagan, 1993). Another striking example is the “WOW” signal seen at the Ohio SETI site…

That’s a quote from a paper Benford wrote with his brother and nephew:

• Gregory Benford, James Benford, and Dominic Benford, Searching for cost optimized interstellar beacons.

They claim the cheapest way a civilization could communicate to lots of planets is a pulsed, broadband, narrowly focused microwave beam that scans the sky. So, for anyone receiving this signal, there would be a lot of time between pulses. That might explain some of the above mysteries, or this one:

As an example of using cost optimized beacon analysis for SETI purposes, consider in detail the puzzling transient bursting radio source, GCRT J17445-3009, which has extremely unusual properties. It was discovered in 2002 in the direction of the Galactic Center (1.25° south of GC) at 330 MHz in a VLA observation and subsequently re-observed in 2003 and 2004 in GMRT observations (Hyman, 2005, 2006, 2007). It is a pulsed coherent source, with the ‘burst’ lasting as much as 10 minutes, with 77-minute period. Averaged over all observations, Hyman et al. give a duty cycle of 7% (1/14), although since some observations may have missed part of bursts, the duty cycle might be as high as 13%.

Even if these are red herrings, it seems very smart to figure out the cheapest ways to transmit signals and use that to guess what signals we should look for. We can easily make the mistake of assuming all extraterrestrial civilizations who bother to send signals through space will be willing to beam signals of enormous power toward us all the time. That could be true of some, but not necessarily all.

The cost analysis is here:

• James Benford, Gregory Benford, Dominic Benford, Messaging with cost optimized interstellar beacons.

and you can see a summary in this talk by Gregory’s brother James, who works on high-power microwave technologies:

The Planck Mission

22 March, 2013

Yesterday, the Planck Mission released a new map of the cosmic microwave background radiation:

380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe cooled down enough for protons and electrons to settle down and combine into hydrogen atoms. Protons and electrons are charged, so back when they were freely zipping around, no light could go very far without getting absorbed and then re-radiated. When they combined into neutral hydrogen atoms, the Universe soon switched to being almost transparent… as it is today. So the light emitted from that time is still visible now!

And it would look like this picture here… if you could see microwaves.

When this light was first emitted, it would have looked white to our eyes, since the temperature of the Universe was about 4000 kelvin. That’s the temperature when half the hydrogen atoms split apart into electrons and protons. 4200 kelvin looks like a fluorescent light; 2800 kelvin like an incandescent bulb, rather yellow.

But as the Universe expanded, this light got stretched out to orange, red, infrared… and finally a dim microwave glow, invisible to human eyes. The average temperature of this glow is very close to absolute zero, but it’s been measured very precisely: 2.725 kelvin.

But the temperature of the glow is not the same in every direction! There are tiny fluctuations! You can see them in this picture. The colors here span a range of ± .0002 kelvin.

These fluctuations are very important, because they were later amplified by gravity, with denser patches of gas collapsing under their own gravitational attraction (thanks in part to dark matter), and becoming even denser… eventually leading to galaxies, stars and planets, you and me.

But where did these fluctuations come from? I suspect they started life as quantum fluctuations in an originally completely homogeneous Universe. Quantum mechanics takes quite a while to explain – but in this theory a situation can be completely symmetrical, yet when you measure it, you get an asymmetrical result. The universe is then a ‘sum’ of worlds where these different results are seen. The overall universe is still symmetrical, but each observer sees just a part: an asymmetrical part.

If you take this seriously, there are other worlds where fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background radiation take all possible patterns… and form galaxies in all possible patterns. So while the universe as we see it is asymmetrical, with galaxies and stars and planets and you and me arranged in a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way, the overall universe is still symmetrical – perfectly homogeneous!

That seems very nice to me. But the great thing is, we can learn more about this, not just by chatting, but by testing theories against ever more precise measurements. The Planck Mission is a great improvement over the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which in turn was a huge improvement over the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE):

Here is some of what they’ve learned:

• It now seems the Universe is 13.82 ± 0.05 billion years old. This is a bit higher than the previous estimate of 13.77 ± 0.06 billion years, due to the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

• It now seems the rate at which the universe is expanding, known as Hubble’s constant, is 67.15 ± 1.2 kilometers per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years. This is less than earlier estimates using space telescopes, such as NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble.

• It now seems the fraction of mass-energy in the Universe in the form of dark matter is 26.8%, up from 24%. Dark energy is now estimated at 68.3%, down from 71.4%. And normal matter is now estimated at 4.9%, up from 4.6%.

These cosmological parameters, and a bunch more, are estimated here:

Planck 2013 results. XVI. Cosmological parameters.

It’s amazing how we’re getting more and more accurate numbers for these basic facts about our world! But the real surprises lie elsewhere…

A lopsided universe, with a cold spot?


The Planck Mission found two big surprises in the cosmic microwave background:

• This radiation is slightly different on opposite sides of the sky! This is not due to the fact that the Earth is moving relative to the average position of galaxies. That fact does make the radiation look hotter in the direction we’re moving. But that produces a simple pattern called a ‘dipole moment’ in the temperature map. If we subtract that out, it seems there are real differences between two sides of the Universe… and they are complex, interesting, and not explained by the usual theories!

• There is a cold spot that seems too big to be caused by chance. If this is for real, it’s the largest thing in the Universe.

Could these anomalies be due to experimental errors, or errors in data analysis? I don’t know! They were already seen by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe; for example, here is WMAP’s picture of the cold spot:

The Planck Mission seems to be seeing them more clearly with its better measurements. Paolo Natoli, from the University of Ferrara writes:

The Planck data call our attention to these anomalies, which are now more important than ever: with data of such quality, we can no longer neglect them as mere artefacts and we must search for an explanation. The anomalies indicate that something might be missing from our current understanding of the Universe. We need to find a model where these peculiar traits are no longer anomalies but features predicted by the model itself.

For a lot more detail, see this paper:

Planck 2013 results. XXIII. Isotropy and statistics of the CMB.

(I apologize for not listing the authors on these papers, but there are hundreds!) Let me paraphrase the abstract for people who want just a little more detail:

Many of these anomalies were previously observed in the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe data, and are now confirmed at similar levels of significance (around 3 standard deviations). However, we find little evidence for non-Gaussianity with the exception of a few statistical signatures that seem to be associated with specific anomalies. In particular, we find that the quadrupole-octopole alignment is also connected to a low observed variance of the cosmic microwave background signal. The dipolar power asymmetry is now found to persist to much smaller angular scales, and can be described in the low-frequency regime by a phenomenological dipole modulation model. Finally, it is plausible that some of these features may be reflected in the angular power spectrum of the data which shows a deficit of power on the same scales. Indeed, when the power spectra of two hemispheres defined by a preferred direction are considered separately, one shows evidence for a deficit in power, whilst its opposite contains oscillations between odd and even modes that may be related to the parity violation and phase correlations also detected in the data. Whilst these analyses represent a step forward in building an understanding of the anomalies, a satisfactory explanation based on physically motivated models is still lacking.

If you’re a scientist, your mouth should be watering now… your tongue should be hanging out! If this stuff holds up, it’s amazing, because it would call for real new physics.

I’ve heard that the difference between hemispheres might fit the simplest homogeneous but not isotropic solutions of general relativity, the Bianchi models. However, this is something one should carefully test using statistics… and I’m sure people will start doing this now.

As for the cold spot, the best explanation I can imagine is some sort of mechanism for producing fluctuations very early on… so that these fluctuations would get blown up to enormous size during the inflationary epoch, roughly between 10-36 and 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang. I don’t know what this mechanism would be!

There are also ways of trying to ‘explain away’ the cold spot, but even these seem jaw-droppingly dramatic. For example, an almost empty region 150 megaparsecs (500 million light-years) across would tend to cool down cosmic microwave background radiation coming through it. But it would still be the largest thing in the Universe! And such an unusual void would seem to beg for an explanation of its own.

Particle physics

The Planck Mission also shed a lot of light on particle physics, and especially on inflation. But, it mainly seems to have confirmed what particle physicists already suspected! This makes them rather grumpy, because these days they’re always hoping for something new, and they’re not getting it.

We can see this at Jester’s blog Résonaances, which also gives a very nice, though technical, summary of what the Planck Mission did for particle physics:

From a particle physicist’s point of view the single most interesting observable from Planck is the notorious N_{\mathrm{eff}}. This observable measures the effective number of degrees of freedom with sub-eV mass that coexisted with the photons in the plasma at the time when the CMB was formed (see e.g. my older post for more explanations). The standard model predicts N_{\mathrm{eff}} \approx 3, corresponding to the 3 active neutrinos. Some models beyond the standard model featuring sterile neutrinos, dark photons, or axions could lead to N_{\mathrm{eff}} > 3, not necessarily an integer. For a long time various experimental groups have claimed N_{\mathrm{eff}} much larger than 3, but with an error too large to blow the trumpets. Planck was supposed to sweep the floor and it did. They find

N_{\mathrm{eff}} = 3 \pm 0.5,

that is, no hint of anything interesting going on. The gurgling sound you hear behind the wall is probably your colleague working on sterile neutrinos committing a ritual suicide.

Another number of interest for particle theorists is the sum of neutrino masses. Recall that oscillation experiments tell us only about the mass differences, whereas the absolute neutrino mass scale is still unknown. Neutrino masses larger than 0.1 eV would produce an observable imprint into the CMB. [….] Planck sees no hint of neutrino masses and puts the 95% CL limit at 0.23 eV.

Literally, the most valuable Planck result is the measurement of the spectral index n_s, as it may tip the scale for the Nobel committee to finally hand out the prize for inflation. Simplest models of inflation (e.g., a scalar field φ with a φn potential slowly changing its vacuum expectation value) predicts the spectrum of primordial density fluctuations that is adiabatic (the same in all components) and Gaussian (full information is contained in the 2-point correlation function). Much as previous CMB experiments, Planck does not see any departures from that hypothesis. A more quantitative prediction of simple inflationary models is that the primordial spectrum of fluctuations is almost but not exactly scale-invariant. More precisely, the spectrum is of the form

\displaystyle{ P \sim (k/k_0)^{n_s-1} }

with n_s close to but typically slightly smaller than 1, the size of n_s being dependent on how quickly (i.e. how slowly) the inflaton field rolls down its potential. The previous result from WMAP-9,

n_s=0.972 \pm 0.013

(n_s =0.9608 \pm 0.0080 after combining with other cosmological observables) was already a strong hint of a red-tilted spectrum. The Planck result

n_s = 0.9603 \pm 0.0073

(n_s =0.9608 \pm 0.0054 after combination) pushes the departure of n_s - 1 from zero past the magic 5 sigma significance. This number can of course also be fitted in more complicated models or in alternatives to inflation, but it is nevertheless a strong support for the most trivial version of inflation.


In summary, the cosmological results from Planck are really impressive. We’re looking into a pretty wide range of complex physical phenomena occurring billions of years ago. And, at the end of the day, we’re getting a perfect description with a fairly simple model. If this is not a moment to cry out “science works bitches”, nothing is. Particle physicists, however, can find little inspiration in the Planck results. For us, what Planck has observed is by no means an almost perfect universe… it’s rather the most boring universe.

I find it hilarious to hear someone complain that the universe is “boring” on a day when astrophysicists say they’ve discovered the universe is lopsided and has a huge cold region, the largest thing ever seen by humans!

However, particle physicists seem so far rather skeptical of these exciting developments. Is this sour grapes, or are they being wisely cautious?

Time, as usual, will tell.


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